OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma House voted Monday to limit the students eligible for a statewide college-aid program amid fears that rising costs could jeopardize the tuition payments for many low-income students who rely on them.
By a 56-37 vote, the House narrowly cleared a proposal from Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, that would restrict the families eligible for the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program, also known as Oklahoma’s Promise. It now heads to the Senate.
Currently, the program pays public tuition costs to students who meet certain academic standards if their families also meet two requirements: earning less than $50,000 when the students apply in eighth, ninth or 10th grade and earning less than $100,000 when the students start college. Osborn’s bill would change that final requirement to less than $60,000.
Osborn said the bill would save the program for the neediest students. She pointed to the program’s budget, which she said has ballooned from $4.5 million in 2003 to roughly $60 million the past school year.
“Do we want to keep this program for the ones it’s truly intended for?” she asked the chamber. “Or do we want the costs to escalate so much that we end up losing it for everybody?”
That was not enough to convince Democrats, along with several of Osborn’s fellow Republicans. After attempting to derail the bill’s vote, opponents described the bill in soaring rhetoric as breaking a promise to some Oklahoma students and preventing them from making it to college.
“Are we going to send these kids into minimum wage jobs?” said Rep. James Lockhart, D-Heavener. “That’s what’s at stake. Let’s not sell out the American dream because it’s politically correct.”
House Democratic leader Scott Inman said single parents could make their children ineligible simply by getting married, and he questioned how costly the program is when compared to a $120 million income tax cut embraced by most Republicans.
According to a spokesman for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, which administers Oklahoma’s Promise, Osborn’s proposal would edge out 500 students from the program in August 2014’s incoming class, saving $1.6 million based on current tuition. After four years, that number would grow to about 1600 students.
“In providing scholarships to over 20,000 Oklahoma students, the program is working exceptionally well,” Glen Johnson, chancellor of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, said in an email statement. “We do not support any efforts to restrict student access to the scholarship.”
Osborn said she saw things differently.
“Those who stood up and argued against House Bill 1721 may have thought they were arguing on behalf of low-income families in their district,” she said in a statement after the session, “but they are actually arguing to take scholarships from low-income families and give it to families who can afford to send their children to college.”